Few women who took part in the Klondike Gold Rush stayed in the territory very long. Even fewer climbed the rugged Chilkoot Pass. The celebrated Martha Black climbed and stayed. So did Émilie Tremblay, and she was the first.
She was born Émilie Fortin on January 4th, 1872 at Saint-Joseph-d'Alma in Québec. In December 1893, she married Nolasque Tremblay, an American from Cohoes, New York.
Long before the world even knew the word Klondike, the Tremblays were off on life's great adventures. On June 16, 1894, after an eventful five-thousand mile journey, the couple arrived at the Fortymile mining camp in the Yukon. They spent the winter on nearby Miller Creek, living in a little log cabin while searching for nuggets.
It was probably a rousing good time for the local miners that Christmas because Émilie put forward her best French Canadian cuisine, but with a local outback flavour of roast caribou, boiled brown beans, dried potatoes, sourdough bread and prune pudding.
In the spring, Émilie and her husband planted a garden on the roof of their cabin, growing radishes and lettuce. In the fall of 1895, the Tremblays visited their families in the US and Québec. They returned to the Yukon in 1898 in the midst of the mad rush to the Klondike gold fields.
Ever the travellers, in 1906 they holidayed in Europe for four months. Until 1913, they worked on a variety of claims in the Dawson region. Then, because of financial difficulties, they moved into Dawson.
Émilie opened a women's clothing store called Madame Tremblays. Today, the shop at the corner of King Street and 3rd Avenue is a Parks Canada historical site. In Dawson, Émilie was noted for her social activities and her work for travellers, missionairies and widows. She was a life member of the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire, a founding member of the Ladies of the Golden North, and a president of the Yukon Women Pioneers. She also received many awards for her works. Some of her medals are in the museum of the Saguenay in Québec.
In 1935, her husband Nolasque died, and Émilie returned to Québec - but not for long. In 1940, at age sixty-eight, she returned to Dawson and married Louis Lagrois. She left her store and moved with Lagrois to the town of Grand Forks, at the confluence of Bonanza and Eldorado creeks. In August 1946, she travelled to San Francisco to participate in the annual reunion of Yukoner Sourdoughs. She spent her last years in a retirement home in Victoria.
Émilie Tremblay died on April 22, 1949, at the age of seventy-seven. In 1985, to commemorate her exceptional devotion to others, the first francophone school in the Yukon was named École Émilie Tremblay.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin